Kathakali: The Must-see Spectacle in Kerala!

You know one of the things that take you from a mere tourist to the hallowed status of a ‘traveller’ is how well you absorb everything that a place has to offer. Whether it is sampling the local food, respecting a local custom or being awed by the cultural extravaganza a place has to offer. And Kerala spoils you for choice with the boat races, the poorams, the kollam, and most breathtakingly, the Kathakali!

What is Kathakali?

Kathakali is believed to be a 17th-century offshoot of Ramanattam, which itself was a fitting reply to Krishnattam, and all these genres were predated by Kootiyattam, the most extant form of Sanskrit dance-theatre. The essential form and content of Kathakali were defined by the raja of Kottarakkara, and then the regional styles developed based on this basic form.


Kathakali was formally institutionalised when the Kerala Kalamandalam was founded in 1930. With this, it became more democratic – anyone, irrespective of class or creed, could now learn the art.
Today, it is a ‘classic art form which is always contemporary’. It stands out from all other classical dance forms in India in many ways, but perhaps the most important difference lies in the how Kathakali defies the ‘Aryanisation’ of dance. It depicts death, violence, blood and gore on stage with relish, with a blithe disregard for the Natyasastra precept of refraining from the same. Again, anti-heroes such as Ravana, Duryodhana and Narakasura are featured as central characters, while the roles of Rama and Krishna assume secondary importance.

The Performers


Everyone you see on stage during a Kathakali performance has trained for years to get where they are. Training is based on the ancient martial art called Kalari Payuttu, and it is never easy. The pain and rigour of training generate ‘the cramps of the early days, the blood in the urine as the massage regimen progressed’, but besides strength and flexibility, the performers need to learn the acting technique, which is best summarised thus: “Where the hand moves, the eyes follow. Where the eyes move, the mind follows. Where the mind moves, the mood follows. Where the mood goes, there the Rasa [flavour] arises”.

Though there are a handful of active women performers today, Kathakali remains a male-dominated genre on account of the physical rigour involved.

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The Kathakali singers have the huge responsibility of providing the rhythm, melody and emotion of the play. This form of singing is known as Vachika Abinayam. After years of training their voices the singers have to know all the stories by heart and the characters to inject the stage with life.

The drummers also undergo years of training studying independently and then with the acting students to learn how to read their movements. Every single movement, from the blink of an eye to the stamp of the foot, has to be in rhythm. There are three drums used in Kathakali, The Madalam, played with both hands, the Chenda – played with sticks and hands, the Edekka also played with the hands and a stick.

Costumes & Makeup

When you mention Kathakali, the first image that comes to mind is the brightly costumed performers. It is impossible to talk about the costumes and makeup of Kathakali without paying tribute to the great Kalamandalam Govinda Variyar Ashan. He played a vital role in the evolution of Chutti [the three-dimensional section of the make-up made from rice paste and paper shapes]. He developed the technique of attaching the paper shapes into the moist paste applied directly onto the actor`s skin. This technique is in the Guinness Book of Records as the most three-dimensional makeup in the world.


The characters are “personality types” ranging from the gods to the most evil are represented by specific designs and colours.

Basic character types:
1. Pachcha (green) with lips painted brilliant coral red portrays noble characters and sages such as Krishna, Vishnu, Rama, Shiva, Surya, Yudhishthira, Arjuna, Nala and philosopher-kings
2. Vella Thadi (white beard) represents a divine being, someone with virtuous inner state and consciousness such as Hanuman
3. Tati (red) is the code for someone with an evil streak such as Ravana, Dushasana and Hiranyakashipu. Some characters have green face (representing heroic or excellences as a warrior) with red dots or lines on their cheeks or red colored mustache or red streaked beard (representing evil inner nature), while others have full face and beard colored red, the latter implying excessively evil characters.
4. Teppu are for special characters found in Hindu mythologies, such as Garuda, Jatayu and Hamsa who act as messengers or carriers, but do not fit the other categories
5. Kari (black) is the code for forest dwellers, hunters, and middle ground character.
6. Yellow is the code for monks, mendicants, and women. Minukka (radiant, shining) with a warm yellow, orange or saffron typifies noble, virtuous feminine characters such as Sita, Panchali and Mohini.
7. Specials such as Narasimham – lion

Makeup can take hours. Since it is critical to a performance, the entire application has to on-point and requires a practiced hand.


The first step has the performer applying basic facial paintings using a coconut leaf splinter.
The real work is then done by the chuttikaaran or the make-up man. He applies the chutti, a white paper trimming for the face that draws attention to the actor’s face. For kathi roles, curved trimmings and white paste of rice flour and lime are attached to either side of the actor’s jawline, adding to the grandeur of the character. He then draws the white borders around the red markings and applies green to the rest of the face. In most cases, the performer adds the final touches himself. He then sticks on the white globes on his nose and forehead. Once he completes the facial makeup, he inserts the harmless seed of chundapoovu on the lower eyelid. This reddens his eyes. The entire second stage takes close to two hours.


The next stage has him wearing the costume. It starts with him putting on a pyjama and leather bell straps. Later, with the help of three others, a long cloth called kacha is used to tie close to 40 pieces of short cloth around the artiste. This gives the well-pleated skirt or njori a bulbous shape. He then puts on the overcoat. The costume attendant ornaments the performer with garlands of beads, shoulder accessories, shawls, armlets and jewellery. Finally, he is handed the elaborately embellished headgear. The artist remembers his gurus before he puts it on. He then wears his silver nails on the right hand before stepping on stage.


Colours of the makeup
The variety of colours used for the Kathakali make up are all obtained from natural substances and herbs. Mineral stones such as cinnabar or chayilyam and manayola are powdered for red and yellow, respectively. For green, the chuttikaaran adds neelam powder to the manayola in appropriate proportion using coconut oil as the base. Kohl is used for painting black. The chutti paste is made by mixing rice flour and lime while chenchilyam, the gum of the maruthu tree, is used as a natural adhesive and protects the skin from burns.

Traditional Performance

A traditional performance of Kathakali would last all night. Now, you have an option of watching an abridged version of the performance in less than an hour or two at one of the Kathakali centers across Kerala.

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So there. Here’s pretty much everything you need to know before you make a booking to see a Kathakali performance on your next trip to Kerala. Ever watched one? Tell us in the comments what you thought of it!

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